BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi government has told its military not to seek assistance from the U.S.-led coalition in operations against the Islamic State group, two senior Iraqi military officials said, amid a crisis of mistrust between Washington and Baghdad after an American strike assassinated a top Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander.
The step shows that while the Iraqí leadership's demands for an immediate removal of U.S. forces have cooled, they are serious about rethinking the strategic relationship, and this is affecting military cooperation.
Officially, Iraqis have been unclear on the status of joint operations. The Iraqi military announced on Jan. 30 that operations had resumed after a three-week halt, but that statement was removed and a military spokesperson rescinded the claim in remarks to state television. It was not followed up with a clarification.
The halt had been called amid soaring tensions after the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike ordered by President Trump that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
On at least two occasions in January, U.S. officials said they expected the pause would be lifted imminently. But in practice, Iraqis are seeking to minimize cooperation with the anti-ISIS coalition, based on government orders, two Iraqi military officials and one militia official said this week.
"After the killing of Soleimani, the Iraqi government decided to inform us formally not to cooperate and not to seek assistance from the U.S.-led international coalition in any operation," a senior military intelligence official told The Associated Press.
"Until now, we have not asked the Americans to provide assistance, we rely on our capabilities to pursue IS elements. The presence of the Americans in the joint operations is only formal," the official said.
The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The coalition paused its mission to fight ISIS in Iraq on Jan. 5 after the strike. That day, Shiite lawmakers, irate over what they called a flagrant violation of sovereignty, passed a nonbinding resolution asking the government to cancel legal agreements that provide the basis for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has stated publicly that U.S. troops must go, but he has stepped back from unilaterally canceling agreements, saying the matter is up to the next prime minister to decide. Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi has not made his policy known toward U.S. troops.
About 5,200 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Iraqi bases to support troops fighting ISIS. They are part of a larger international coalition invited by the Iraqi government in 2014.
One of the officials, a commander in Iraq's elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Services in western Anbar province, said some training continues, but "as for military operations and carrying out operations, there is no support."
"We have knowledge that the American support to the Iraqi forces has stopped," said the commander of an Iranian-backed militia group.
No coalition airstrikes have been carried out against ISIS since the assassination of Soleimani, said coalition spokesman Myles Caggins. In contrast, 45 strikes were conducted in Iraq in October and November.
"The Iraqis have not requested assistance with airstrikes in recent weeks, while our operations are paused. All coalition airstrikes have been coordinated with the Iraqi Security Forces for years," he said.
Iraqi military personnel who have benefited from coalition training are making appeals in private, knowing firsthand Iraq's reliance on U.S. military technologies and aircraft.
"We have no alternative now," said the senior CTS official. "The battle against ISIS is technological, and we don't own any of these technologies, only the Americans do."
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, met Tuesday with Iraqi leaders and acknowledged that joint military operations and training have been scaled back, though he said U.S. special operations forces are doing some missions with Iraqi commandos.
"We're still in a period of turbulence. We've got a ways to go," he said.
A full-scale U.S. withdrawal would bring a major setback in Iraqi capabilities to fight ISIS that Iraqi military officers acknowledge. After the United States withdrew from the country in 2011, the Iraqi military to collapsed in the face of a 2014 blitz by ISIS that overran the north and west. As a result, the government invited the Americans back.
"The Iraqi forces present in western Iraq need continuous air support and logistical support," said the CTS official. "These are provided to us by coalition forces, especially the U.S. If they are taken out, we will be paralyzed."
The Iraqis also rely on U.S. military expertise to maintain their American-made F-16 fighter aircraft.
In the Pentagon's March 2019 funding justification for the 2020 fiscal year, the Defense Department said if the requested $1.045 billion was not allocated to continue counter-ISIS training and equipment, it would jeopardize Iraq's ability to solidify gains made by the coalition, potentially forcing them to "strengthen relations with other state actors" — a reference to Iran.
A September 2018 report to Congress by Inspector General Glen Fine said Iraqi security forces exhibited "systemic weakness" and were "years if not decades," away from ending reliance on coalition assistance.
Iraq's Kurdish and the majority of Sunni factions oppose a U.S. withdrawal. Many Sunnis consider the U.S. presence a bulwark against both ISIS and Iran.
"If the Americans go out, then we will be attacked by everyone, and by everyone I mean ISIS, the government, the militias and the parties," said Abu Ahmad, a grocery shop owner in the Old City of Mosul, which was overrun by ISIS in 2014. "It is the U.S. that keeps them away from swallowing Mosul."
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